When my kids were little, another mom and I started swapping babysitting for date nights. We could have some dates with our husbands and wouldn’t have to spend a dime on babysitting! It seemed like a great solution and it worked really well for a few months… but it wasn’t perfect. Sometimes I wanted a date night and she didn’t need a sitter for a couple months. I also wanted to swap babysitting at other times, like for appointments during the day. We had a few other friends who were interested in our babysitting swapping idea, but we weren’t sure how to keep it organized and fair. I started reading about the idea of a co-op group (or cooperative) and thought it might work for us.
That’s how my babysitting co-op was formed, about 5 years ago. I got together a few mom friends that I knew from a mother’s group and set up the group and the rules. It’s been running pretty smoothly with very few bumps along the way. The co-op was a wonderful resource for me since I didn’t live close to any family. It helped me to feel a lot less alone in the very tough job of parenting.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Here’s how to set up your own babysitting co-op:
Find a group of parents
The best kind of group of people to start a babysitting co-op is a group of parents (usually moms, but it could also include dads) who already know each other and meet regularly. This could be a mother’s club, a church group, a book club, or a group of neighbors. Ideally, the group would already be friends and be in constant contact. Co-ops only work if there is trust and cooperation in the group. Otherwise, members will feel nervous about using the sitters and might prefer to pay “a professional” instead.
Choose the right parents for your co-op
Being in a babysitting co-op means that you will have to babysit and as we all know, babysitting can be HARD WORK. You need people who are willing to do the work, so there must be some motivation. An ideal candidate would:
- Have some free time available for babysitting. A mom working 3 jobs might need babysitters, but she’s never going to have time to babysit for anyone else and probably isn’t a good candidate for the co-op group.
- Not already have access to unlimited free babysitting. If a mother lives next door to Grandma who is willing to babysit anytime she needs, the mom is not going to have motivation to earn babysitting time from the co-op.
- Has a charitable spirit. A co-op is meant to be cooperative! The parents in the group need to be caring and truly want to help each other out. If someone treats it too much like a business transaction, it can ruin the spirit of the group.
- Enjoys other people’s kids. Maybe this is obvious, but not all parents enjoy other people’s kids and those parents probably won’t make good babysitters.
Set up your communication system
How are parents in the group going to communicate that they have a need for a babysitter? It needs to be a private form of communication, but it should be somewhat structured so people can see if the need has been met or not. For our group, we chose to use a Facebook group (with privacy set to “secret”), and it has worked very well. Each request for a sitter is a new post and then others can comment if they’re available to take the job. A web-based message board or an e-mail list could work too.
Make rules for your currency
It took a while to work out the kinks in our currency. The system we finally settled on works like this:
- 1 point in the co-op is approximately equivalent to $1 in the real world
- 1 hour of babysitting 1 child = 10 points
- Each additional child raises the hourly rate by 2 points (12 points for 2 children, 14 points for 3 children, 16 points for 4 children, etc)
- Hours are recorded in half-hour increments with quarter hours being rounded up (try to err on paying too high rather than paying too low)
We used to have a system of 1 point = 1 hour of babysitting, but it got confusing and the fractional points got pretty silly. By using all even numbers for pay rates, we’re able to work with only whole numbers now. The system is also easy for everyone to understand because the co-op pay rates are comparable to the real world. $10-16/hour for an experienced adult babysitter is a reasonable rate in our area.
Another advantage of the system of 1 point = $1 is that the points can easily be used for other kinds of bartering. Moms could always use a little more help, right? In our group, we’ve had people pay points to others in the group for transporting kids to activities, dog-sitting, house-sitting, sewing services, and cosmetology services. The possibilities are only limited by the kinds of services the parents in the group are able to offer. The pay rates are based on what someone would pay for an equivalent service with real money.
Assign a leader and points secretary
The group needs someone to be in charge, to keep it running smoothly. If the group is using a points system, a secretary for tracking points is also necessary. In our group, this was always the same person (leader and secretary), but it could be two people. Points-tracking could be done by individual members, but I feel that one person handling it is less messy. I’ve also heard of groups using physical currency (like special coins or poker chips) instead of centralized points, which would eliminate the need for someone to track the points.
When I was leading the group, I tracked points in a Facebook document, but the new leader has switched to a Google document. The Google document is easier because it’s set up like a spreadsheet with one page per person. It doesn’t matter where or how the points are tracked, as long as everyone knows where to find the information.
Write group guidelines
Even if the group is made up of a bunch of best friends, I encourage you to WRITE DOWN THE RULES. Nothing can sour a group faster than a disagreement about what’s fair. Simply writing down the rules solves most of those problems. Here are some rules that have worked well for our group:
- The maximum number of members is 20 (to keep the group intimate).
- A member is removed from the group if they’re inactive during a half of a year (January-June or July-December). This helps to keep the group active and fresh.
- The points are paid at the hourly rates based on the number of children only. No other factors matter (location of babysitting, age of children, whether they’re sleeping or awake, etc).
- The mom who needs a babysitter has complete control over choosing her sitter. She can ask someone directly or post in the group and has no obligation to choose one babysitter over another. It’s completely acceptable to choose a sitter because she’s close to her house, her kids like that sitter, or because the children are friends.
Set rules for new members
People will always be coming and going from your co-op since people move, kids grow up, and life situations change. Because of this, you will probably always be adding new members. Getting new members assimilated into the group has been one of the biggest challenges for our co-op, but our rules for new members have evolved to be helpful:
- New members must be “sponsored” by a current member and the current member is responsible for making sure the new member gets started. The new member and sponsor should already be good friends with each other, including having been to each other’s houses.
- New members start with 50 points.
- The new member is in a “probationary period” for 2 months and during that time, she must BOTH use a babysitter and be a babysitter. If she doesn’t do both of those things, she is removed at the end of those 2 months.
Have an updated contact list available
Make sure everyone in the group has everyone else’s address, phone number, and other important information (like kids’ allergies). I would also encourage including contact information of more than one person (dad, grandparent, etc) in case of an emergency. We have a contact list file in our Facebook group with everyone’s information. This is something that the group leader should manage and make sure it’s updated on a regular basis.
Be sure everyone is staying friendly
If your group isn’t already meeting regularly for some other purpose (mom’s group, book club, etc) make sure there are ways for the members to keep in touch in real life. The co-op can have play dates or “mom’s night out” meet-ups. These are also great ways for new members to meet the older members.
With my kids getting older now, it won’t be long before it will be time for me to leave the babysitting co-op. I have a network of teen sitters that I like to use for date nights and I rarely need anyone to watch my kids for appointments since they’re in full-day school. Because I knew my days in the group are numbered, I found a new leader to take over this year and she’s been doing great. It makes me happy that something I created will continue helping other moms, even after I’m gone. The co-op helped me get through some of the toughest years of parenting while feeling a little less alone, and I hope it can do the same for you and your friends. Creating a babysitting co-op is a great way to help yourself while also helping other moms.
Do you do any childcare swapping? Would you consider starting a babysitting co-op? Comment below or come join the discussion in our Smart Family Money Facebook Group.